At random

Last year around this time a sunflower appeared radiantly on a side of the house not frequented, not thought of in terms of a sunflower. There was great expectation, but the batteries on the camera needed recharging, and the sunflower was forgotten. Next time I looked, the sunflower head had drooped like a willow, perhaps too long neglected. In a little while the flower was brown and gone. There was no lesson to learn but that perhaps sometimes precocity and hope must be nurtured more than solitude.

Things done lately:
stumbling on a cautious rabbit hopping away,
hearing the rustle of a bird in a treetop,
watching the ever-changing outline of clouds,
following visually the unpredictable course of a butterfly,
jumping back from a baby snake on a path,
feeling soft rain drizzling on bare arms,
rescuing a daddy-long-legs from the bathtub,
smiling at a lizard huff and puff its red-throated flap,
gazing at a rainbow in the dusk sky.

A teen bear has been crossing down the road lately, back and forth around dawn and dusk. Bears are always about, but not in the abundance of 2003, when entries here and photographs for the Features section were opportune. Surely they suffer from the habitat destruction since then, the increasing heat of summer, and the decline in native food sources. Now they make the rounds of trash containers, attracted especially by the smell of flesh, which, however, will not be in our container since we don’t eat it. Nevertheless, the bears will check, as part of their routine, knocking over containers, squashing down field fence, going about the bearish things they do.

Simplicity and lowliness

Every nuance to the word “simplicity” is a necessary understanding of the very concept: simplicity as uncomplicated, simplicity as innocence or naivete, simplicity as directness, simplicity as candor. But simplicity as more than attitude or speech means applying a concept to behavior, action, and habit. How to make our daily lives uncomplicated, innocent, direct, and candid is, first, an aesthetic issue and, secondly, an ethical one.

Aesthetics is human reflection on a natural setting and creation of a comparable model and applied as criteria to what is read, heard, seen, or otherwise experienced. That assumes the role of an artist deliberately creating an object of art that will achieve the aesthetics that he or she believes best conveys thought or feeling. But unspoken in the artist’s mind is that aesthetics is also given by nature and life. Do we interpret what we see or interpret what we feel?

We may have definitions in terms of functionality or ornateness but they must be applied to something concrete. Thus we may see the complexities of the Chartres cathedral as ultimately simple but likewise the little cottage. Or is the sea simple when in a raging thunderstorm or must it be calm and glassy in order to be simple? Is a song or poem simple just because it is sparse in words but is otherwise not well expressed, not successful?

In the realm of ethics, simplicity can have a mix of aesthetics and ethics. Or as Kierkegaard says, the right aesthetics, consciously applied, will inevitably make the right ethics, as long as the continuum of values is the same.

The aesthetics of solitude, reflected in the austere huts of hermits, classical poetry, rounds of meditation or hours, modest herbal gardens and wooden eating bowls, and the like, are aesthetics that point to ethics in terms of lifestyles and disengagement from the world. We can glimpse these intimations, color or dilute them somewhat for lay people in urban settings, and still imagine what simplicity is. Of course, if these aesthetic suggestions do not seem motivating, we will probably not succeed in simplifying our lives, throwing our hands up in despair at how remote our daily lives are from genuine simplicity.

And in modern times, it may well be impossible to be simple without fading away from public life altogether, from media, technology, and communications like — ironically — the Internet. Pushed hard enough towards radical simplicity, we can begin to perceive a radical ethics in simplicity, not merely aesthetics or a “bourgeois” ethics.

Kierkegaard indirectly offers a discussion of simplicity when he compares the Christian and the “pagan” in their notions of lowliness. The Christian, maintains Kierkegaard, is lowly, but he is a Christian, and that justifies his lowliness, gives him a spiritual prototype so that his simplicity is not in vain. The pagan, however, sees simplicity as a “being nothing” and therefore must despair, especially despair of not being consoled by God.

That is Kierkegaard’s logic, but he is not really convincing, I think, because he then points to the bird as an example of a lowliness that is not aware of its lowliness and therefore does not despair, unlike the pagan.

Like the free bird when it soars highest in its joy over existing, just so does the lowly Christian soar even higher; like the trapped bird when it hopelessly and fearfully struggles to its death in the net, just so the lowly pagan, even more pitiable, desouls himself in the captivity of nothingness.

Two points glare at us. First, the premise that lofty joy really is the lot of the Christian, a kind of perpetual confidence, if not ecstasy, based on faith and hope; but, secondly, the absence of a sense that consciousness — that wound of human beings that deprives them of the simplicity of the bird but also introduces the critical human faculty that makes of lofty joy a projection of belief but not an intrinsic part of nature and reality.

The bird and the Christian do not soar in equivalent joy, as Kierkegaard suggests. Indeed, in a following essay, he brilliantly skewers the ethics of joy as a human contrivance that is short of the first prerequisite: “Seek first the kingdom of God.” As Kierkegaard states in the first sentence of his essay “The Lily in the Field and the Bird of the Air”:

From the lily and the bird as teachers, let us learn silence, or learn to be silent.” (emphasis his)

Truly the beginning of simplicity is silence, for only silence ends the adornments we add to feelings, the adornments we append to idle thoughts, the gravitas we assign to even our deliberate thoughts. We must be neither the exultant Christian nor the aggrieved pagan but the bird, whose absence of consciousness lets it exalt and grieve in natural order or sequence, with a kind of ruthless necessity that consciousness ever shields from us.


Does the thoughtful person incline to a life of aestheticism? We are inevitably beings of our senses as much as our minds, and aesthetic criteria is derived from the senses. But this does not isolate sense-objects as our only context in life. The implication otherwise is that the senses will always overrun us. We are more complex: the organs symbolize a variety of complex interactions. Thus we are senses but also mind, heart, and strength.

Aesthetics does not equate to a life of decadence and vice but a life of simple pleasures according to the original proposals of Epicurus. Not the pursuit of active pleasures from specific activities but what Epicurus called “katastematic” pleasure, or the absence of pain, fear, and distress, the state of balance and equanimity. As mentioned here before, Freud saw this reality principle overriding the pleasure principle. And should it be surprising that the loftiest philosophical and spiritual concerns are for such a state, not for euphoria, mystical excitation, or engagement.

Aesthetics, not pleasure, becomes an avenue for attaining this state. Aesthetics falls into the third of Plato’s triumvirate: Truth, Goodness, Beauty. Undertood in this sense, beauty is a psychological consideration that avoids the necessity of asserting beliefs, tenets, or opinions — or, rather, finds them to be human contrivances that do not bring equanimity.

This is a necessary irony, that a belief or maintenance of an aesthetic life signifies the absence or suspension of belief or opinion. But it does not. Such a life defines values without insisting that they are entirely available to anyone else. Thus, a religious person may well rest in the aesthetic comfort of ritual, music, readings, recitations, etc., all within an inviolable solitude. Another person, lacking any such beliefs, will nevertheless find an active pleasure in the same music and readings, but will use them only as a complement to a larger psychological state of equanimity and solitude.

Solitude is a useful bridge for bringing many tastes and techniques into unexpected compatibility. Thus does the solitary learn tolerance, by carefully perceiving what each solitary needs, regardless of personal beliefs.

But the person engaged with the world will only make aesthetics a vehicle for furthering the wrong attitude, the wrong sentiments, the wrong psychology. For such a person, aesthetics becomes a source of active pleasure and distraction from worldly avocations that already lead down wrong paths. From the inevitable corners of conscience comes not a cautionary remorse but a loud egotism, indifference, and decadence.

Aestheticism when derived from a creed but expressed as a beauty of its own stands separate from the creed in providing a distinct psychological function. This inverts Plato’s order but does so without assumptions or prejudice. Wisdom becomes available not from notions of Truth or even Good but from the silence that observation, contemplation, and appreciation engender.

Simplicity can then work to strengthen the positive feelings that come from our soft and gentle experiencing of solitude and silence or our earned lull from worldliness. Simple things like long walks, the crafting of diet, our work in a garden, the selecting of poetry to read or music to prefer — let alone artistic creation and meditative reflection — all become constructive aids to our solitude. Others would call them aesthetic pursuits, but they are more than that when consciously guiding our self-awareness, when more than mere entertainments.

Schopenhauer views aesthetics as entangled with the will, wherein the will strives for fulfillment of desire, and aesthetics dampens desire, redirects the will, and rescues the self from despair and pessimism. And aestheticism for Schopenhauer is as far as the self will get, culminating in the insights to be had from music (and the younger Nietzsche also saw music as the highest aesthetic expression). However, the important insight is in terms of not a philosophical system or tenet but, rather, the whole state of mind, heart, and being. Otherwise, we fall back on a creed or belief to define our intuition, our experience of the world, of nature, of people and society.

Aesthetics can contribute to the crafting of life, to right conduct, to an identification with the beautiful (in Plato’s sense, regardless of posited ideal forms). Aesthetics is an imitation of ways and harmonies, that make us part of nature. When we derive the form of our lives from what is beautiful, we must distinguish what our emotions alone call beauty if it is mere excitation. For beauty is in the quiet harmony of nature and the universe, not in the contrivances of society or the desires of the human animal. Schopenhauer saw this but failed to offer a formula of transcendence. And perhaps there is none. But rather, we must make one.

Kierkegaard at last points out the necessary understanding about aesthetics. He argues that aesthetics only calls up the sensual and emotional in us (as already suggested above) but that our affirmation of these sense-desires is not a choice of a path at all. He argues that by choosing we are essentially becoming conscious (with mind and heart and will) and thus capable of more than a passive enjoyment. And choosing our goal is to be, as he puts it,

at the crossroads in such a way that there is no way out except to choose, and choosing, one will choose the right thing.

Thus conscious living engenders the insight to choose the right thing, the right way of living, the ethical life (in Kierkegaard’s sense). By choosing, we use the will to assert a character to our lives. The simple things that contribute to our sense of solitude and insight are actually ethical acts — not so much a choosing between good and evil, as most creeds will want to portray things, but a choosing to live deliberately.

Thus , there is a continuity between aesthetics rightly understood and used, and ethics. For Kierkegaard, what distinguishes sensual pleasure from “katastematic” aesthetics — though he never uses the word — is clearly the will. At that point of choosing, aesthetics returns in full the beauty of existence. It brings us the insight that permits us to use the world and not to misuse it, as Kierkegaard puts it. Thus he sums it well:

The aesthetic in a person is that by which he spontaneously and immediately is what he is.

No more, no less. Nothing further: neither potential nor actualization. And yet, there is a further:

The ethical is that by which the person becomes what he becomes.

Machado on paths

Robert Bly translates “Soledades,” the first collection of poems by the celebrated Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939), as “Times Alone.” The literal meaning of “soledades” is “solitudes,” which does sound awkward in English. Times alone are instances of solitude. They are, superficially, times when one is alone, but Machado is writing memories, dreams, images, symbols, sentiments. The totality of the poems evokes solitude, but individually they are solitudes, not simply times or moments alone.

The images of solitude in Machado are universal. In Japanese poetry, the wistful sense of wabi-sabi is especially revealed by seasonal images combined with the poet’s precise reflection upon them. In Machado, the images are everywhere: raindrops across windowpanes, children’s voices on a distant street, the stolid eyes of a mule, a long and solitary corridor, the scent of jasmine, a ruined old house, the flight of a stork, a black and gnarled tree against the horizon.

Less evocative and more philosophical, perhaps, are Machado’s poems about paths or roads. In “Campos de Castilla” (“Countryside of Castile”) he writes (these are my translations, not Bly’s):

All things pass away and all things remain,
but our task is to pass on,
to go on making paths,
paths over the sea.

Thus our road, our path, is not so distinct, so proud, as to even be distinguishable in time. We make a path over water, over the sea, and nothing is noticed.

In another poem of this collection, Machado writes

To die … To fall like a drop
of the sea into an immense ocean?
Or to be what I have never been:
one without shadow or dream,
a solitary who goes on
without a path and without a mirror?

What is death and dissolution: is it the image of dissolution or union? And what remains of our shadow and our dream, which has always been our own all along? What a sense of solitude to lose even these ephemeral aspects of ourselves?

But in his anthology, Bly omitted the famous but not-yet-overly-familiar Machado poem about paths. Here is the wonderful translation by Betty Jean Craig of poem 29 of “Proverbs and songs” in Machado’s “Countryside of Castile.”

Wanderer, your footsteps are
the road, and nothing more;
wanderer, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
By walking one makes the road,
and upon glancing behind
one sees the path
that never will be trod again.
Wanderer, there is no road —
Only wakes upon the sea.


The hermit has always existed on the periphery of society, both physically and mentally (the latter being the range from psychological to spiritual). The periphery is that zone neglected and disdained by the circles of pleasure and power. The periphery is in part a physical place, in part a cultural and social place. It is not geography alone, city versus country, or even part of the city versus another part. Periphery can be a state of mind and habitat that alone enriches the solitary heart, regardless of where a person is physically.

One of the first questions occurring to the solitary, to the person on the brink of embracing their solitude, is whether they should work, how should they live their daily lives. The religious person finds resolution in a community of ideas, taking the edge of the question of solitude and blunting it with a community that is like-minded, as much as possible. For everyone else, the question underlies any other practice, whether one reads and thinks, meditates or not, lives in the city or the country.

Some resources are suggested by history, but time has irrevocably dissipated the precious models of the past. The modern hermit will find the question of work, labor, money, etc. not addressed in attempting to apply the past to the present.

In ancient China, eremitism became a philosophical option distinct from an occupation that required physical remoteness. The hermit was not a subsistence farmer in that he or she did not grow for gain; not a wood-cutter or charcoal-burner in that these entailed physical isolation but did not require eremitic values to accomplish them.

The hermit typically lived on the physical periphery, in a small dwelling, growing or finding the food needed for self. The rest of life consisted of the natural world, and minimal needs for food, clothing, books, devote objects, perhaps an inkbrush or incense, or a religious tool or a garden tool.

The Chinese hermit Stonehouse, for example, fits this image of life on the periphery. Mary Rotha Clay and others have documented how medieval English hermits were often occasional bridge-tenders or toll-keepers, or maintained roads or cleared trails, occupations not unlike the wood-cutter and charcoal-burner. Europe did not extol the hermit as did China, and a livelihood was a minimal necessity for those without a patron, short of begging. The protagonist of Jean Giono’s The Man Who Planted Trees lived first as a shepherd and then as a beekeeper. The protagonist in Donald Hall’s hermit book for children, The Man Who Lived Alone, worked a few weeks of the year to pay his taxes.

The question of how the solitary provides for daily necessities can overshadow his or her project of cultivating a refined philosophy of solitude and philosophy of life. The ideal setting is simply what the solitary can do.

There are just as many hermits in the city with regular employment as in the country, as many in the streets as in the mountains. As Emerson has written: “The solitude of Nature is not so essential as solitude of habit.” The Zen saying: “Can you be a hermit in the city?” begs the same question. But all sorts of animals live in cities, many in gutters and behind cage bars — and humans are even less immune from the trepidations of crowded urban life or vapid suburbia than animals. Cities have the essential function of nurturing the mind of those with leisure and wealth with art, culture, and learning. For the rest it is not so providential. The solitude of cities is a ghostly sense of alienation tranquilized by consumption. The overwhelming number of people suffering involuntary solitude find refuge in cities, like their medieval (and now globalized) counterparts, countryside victims of drought, famine, or attack.

The opportunity to experience nature is the opportunity to rediscover the sinews and blood that courses at once through rocks and rivers and soars up trees and mountains — and is identical with the self, with the human body. Heidegger in his hut undoubtedly derived important insights, late in life, into the concept of releasement. Edward Abbey in the desert, as a “desert solitaire,” experienced an intensity of living that his fiction never managed to convey. We speak of society as contrivance when compared to the genuine creativity of the mind and heart, yet the city is the heart of both our best and our worst human efforts. Only the inspired spirit, based on memory or dreams or a deep insight, makes the breakthrough out of mundane life and into solitude, regardless of the setting.

Based on his convictions, Tao-chien abandoned the city for a village, stamping the red dust from his perpetual chase after office, throwing his lot at last with the reclusion of a distant farming place. But that was the 5th century C.E., when the mountains were unmined and the air was clean, and villages really lived simply and (to use the Buddhist sense of the word) wholesomely. Today, bedroom communities of commuters, satellite dishes, and ponderous gas-guzzlers poke out of bucolic settings to announce the triumph of civilization over nature.

It is not only China, of course, but every corner of the globalized world that has been polluted by the modern world. The destruction of nature represents the destruction of hermit habitat, as much as the habitat of so many other creatures. All people suffer from the wholesale targeting of any one natural place. Ultimately, the mutilations of the earth are like self-mutilations of human mind and body, driven by a desire for amusement and contrivance, fleeing as quickly as possible in the opposite direction of silence and self-examination.

We search in vain today for a corner in which to still view the stars, for some little place where water can still be drunk unfiltered, where no human sound like an airplane’s can be heard. Truly the gods must be crazy — except that they are gods of our own making. The whole world has no place left for simplicity, neither geographical nor mental. How can the collective mind appreciate its environs when the inhabitants of modern society put as their first goal upon awakening to hear packaged news and eat packaged food, ignoring the song of birds, the presence of a new flower, the dew trickling down a green leaf, a moment for meditation?

Meditation itself continues to be commodified as a device for relieving stress, just enough for resuming the vicious cycle. The heart’s search for solitude is shunted off as a psychological aberration hostile to society and culture. But who can live like Kamo no Chomei, the Japanese poet of the 12th century, who carried his house with him, a symbol of evanescence and the vanity of society and civilization around him?

We do well to monitor the signs of the times and stay safely on the periphery, safeguarding our few virtues. The first desert hermit Paul, when visited by an important and admiring dignitary, exclaimed, “How fares the world? What new empire holds sway?” The words are reported by St. Jerome, who himself struggled between the plaudits of urban life and the serenity of the solitary desert. But in the words he attributes to Paul he rightly captures the hermit ethos. If the modern world contains such deserts … somewhere on the periphery.

We, too, should carry this sense of detachment, geographical but also mental and spiritual, wherever we happen to make our cell. To cultivate our soul is to cultivate a garden, whether the latter be truly of dirt and vegetables or of reflections and dreams.